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April 10, 2021

Paterson, New Jersey

Jim Jarmusch has selected a quiet little town in New Jersey as the setting of his latest film and he has named the protagonist after it.

Paterson is a regular bus driver, but in his free time he writes poems. He is also encouraged by the fact that two famous poets are among the town’s former better-known inhabitants: William Carlos Williams and Allen Ginsberg. His poems have the most commonplace topics, starting with his favourite brand of matches – they are, somehow, a literary correspondent of pop art. The life of the bus driver is peaceful: the same daily commute, the same brief dialogues with a colleague in the garage, the same bus route, the same evening walk with the dog, the same posture at the bar, the same affectionate dialogues with his wife at home. And his wife, who has various fanciful projects – from cookies to outfits and fashion design – has her plastic fad too: everything coloured white and black. From time to time, Paterson stops on a city bench and admires a waterfall.

The city itself, with its petty conflicts, seems to lie under the aegis of diffuse poetry. At one time, the driver overhears two teenagers talking in the bus. They are talking about an Italian anarchist who, leaving Paterson, went back to Europe to kill a king. But the story seems to be more meant to legitimise the idealist and non-conformist conscience of the teenagers than to muddy the good renown of the peaceful little town.

Paterson was also the home – for several years – of Sayfullo Saipov, a fairly withdrawn Uzbek who had the rarer chance of winning a United States visa. While the Italian anarchist crossed the Atlantic to look for his victim and selected it in a pinpoint manner, the quiet Uzbek from Paterson travelled only briefly to Manhattan, where he drove randomly over cyclists. Several of the victims were not even Americans.

And his motivation was religious, even though at the mosque he frequented in Paterson everyone distanced themselves from the attack. We could say that the Uzbek was an intruder in the calm and poetic universe of the little town in New Jersey. But no part of the world is really protected from such intruders. Violence not only flourishes in certain places and at certain times – during wars, in areas controlled by the mafia, in totalitarian regimes etc. – but it stalks everywhere. What fails to convince in Jarmusch’s film is precisely the ignoring of violence, better put its illusory domestication. The only forms that appear in the life of the driver – apart from the story about the anarchist – are a slight threat from some hoodlums, a love spat at the bar, and his dog, left home alone, destroying his poems notebook. With his wife the only problems concern her far too numerous “artistic” plans, sometimes a bit costly.

Sometimes the comfort of contemporary civilisation – at least in a certain part of the world – puts our consciences to sleep, so that we forget the dangers. In fact, we should not think in terms of danger per se – specific to a rhetoric that prepares discriminations.

We gave up the old Christian theology of the evil that lies in people’s lives, but often we do not know how to integrate in our new systems of values a realistic understanding of the possibilities of evil. We often lack the courage to admit what separates a good man from a bad man, regardless of his social, ethnic, or religious identity. In other words, we lack, not once, a vigorous ethic that would help us pragmatically tackle the thorny issue of multiform violence.

Otherwise we will continue to live for a time in a “protective” bubble, until some unsuspected neighbour suddenly breaks it and throws us into a gory nightmare.

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